More than dust in the wind

Features - Industry Regulations

Federal agencies continue to demonstrate their intent to enforce silica dust regulations on job sites and at the workplace.

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November 8, 2018
Brian Taylor
Hoda Bogdan | Adobe Stock

Business owners and managers are often suspicious of new regulations. This skepticism is often based on the sheer number of new enforcement actions that are introduced on an annual basis.

For concrete and demolition recyclers, a pending United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulation regarding airborne silica dust has been among the industry’s most discussed guidelines over the past decade.

The regulation has continued to move through the discussion (and legal appeals) stages and into the realm of enforcement. Recyclers and contractors who handle concrete and other aggregates-based materials needed to be ready to comply with some aspects of these OSHA regulations by June 23, with others are being phased in by June 2020. The pertinent regulations compel companies and employees to comply with OSHA rules as they apply to worker exposure to respirable crystalline silica.

Unpleasant side effects

Conscientious employers take measures to protect workers against inhaling all kinds of dust, but some concrete dusts with considerable amounts of crystalline silica provide an extra reason for precautions.

Beyond the legal and financial considerations of enforcement, employers have to contend with health consequences of worker exposure. Crystalline silica is considered a known carcinogen and can lead to silicosis, a chronic disease that scars lung tissue. OSHA estimates that as many as 2 million construction workers have been exposed to silica dust by breaking, sawing and mechanically crushing some types of sand, stone and artificial stone.

Chronic silicosis is described by the American Lung Association as a disease that starts with a cough and breathing difficulty, potentially followed by “chronic bronchitis-like symptoms [in which] the lungs have additional sounds called wheezes and crackles.” Lung tissue scarring can continue over time, leading to “signs of chronic lung disease such as leg swelling, increased breathing rate, and bluish discoloration of the lips,” according to the association.

A 2014 blog post on the Centers for Disease Control (CDS) website indicates kitchen and bathroom countertop materials marketed as quartz surfaces “may contain up to 93 percent crystalline silica,” and workers who fabricate, install or dismantle and demolish these stone-like countertops may be at particular risk.

The percentage of crystalline silica in concrete’s aggregates is likely to be closer to the 30 percent range. One estimate of crystalline silica in demolition dust published by an Australian state’s workplace health and safety agency estimates the substance’s presence as being in the 3- to 4-percent range.

The problem for demolition contractors and aggregates recyclers is that while silica dust concentrations are smaller in the materials they process, the volume of material being crushed or pulverized is much greater.

Obligations and solutions

As with any new legislation, how and when the silica dust regulation gets enforced by agencies will almost certainly evolve over time.

OSHA’s rule 1926.1153 pertaining to crystalline silica lists at least two demolition-related situations where preventive measures need to be taken:

  • the use of jackhammers (hydraulic breakers) indoors or in enclosed areas; and
  • the use of walk-behind saws indoors or in enclosed areas.

Both OSHA rule 1926.1153 and 1910.1053 reference permissible exposure limits (PELs), with the latter rule stating employers must “ensure that no employee is exposed to an airborne concentration of respirable crystalline silica in excess of 50 micrograms per cubic meter, calculated as an 8-hour TWA (tie-weighted average).”

In cases where the silica levels are likely to exceed that, employers may be obligated to provide workers with respirators. Such areas must also be marked with signs spelling out the respiratory danger, rule 1910.1053 states.

In February, OSHA produced a fact sheet (https://www.osha.gov/Publications/OSHA3682.pdf) on the “Respirable Crystalline Silica Standard for General Industry and Maritime,” or rule 1910.1053. The industry categories mentioned include the manufacturing of concrete, which may well be applied to recyclers of concrete producing secondary aggregates. (Rule 1926.1153 is to be applied to exposures occurring in “construction work,” which includes demolition operations.)

On the 1910.1503 fact sheet, dust control methods are specifically mentioned. Concrete recyclers are familiar with the preventive measures suggested, which include:

  • using wet methods that apply water at the point where silica dust is made;
  • placing local exhaust ventilation that removes silica dust at or near the point where it is made; and
  • building enclosures that isolate the work process or the worker.

OSHA also recommends employers “restrict housekeeping practices that expose workers to silica, such as use of compressed air without a ventilation system to capture the dust and dry sweeping, where effective, safe alternatives are available.”

Put it in writing

In addition to the operational preventive measures, business owners and managers whose tasks include compliance are charged with recordkeeping obligations pertaining to the OSHA silica dust rules.

The OSHA fact sheet on rule 1910.1503 mentions the following recordkeeping requirements:

  • establish and implement a written exposure control plan that identifies tasks that involve exposure and methods used to protect workers;
  • offer medical exams—including chest X-rays and lung function tests—every three years to workers exposed at or above the action level for 30 or more days per year;
  • train workers on the health effects of silica exposure, workplace tasks that can expose them to silica, and ways to limit exposure; and
  • keep records of workers’ silica exposure and medical exams.

A Denver-based entrepreneur who moved from the demolition sector into the software industry says a lack of these record-keeping aspects can penalize even the most well-intentioned employers.

Speaking to Construction & Demolition Recycling earlier in 2018 about regulations affecting the remediation sector, Roni Szigeti, CEO and founder of the Denver-based FieldFlo, said employers who have taken every measure possible to protect workers from harmful substances can still encounter significant trouble if documentation is incomplete.

Szigeti says he created FieldFlo compliance tracking software “first and foremost due to the fact that no software existed in the market that was tailored specifically to, and directly solved the problems of, the abatement and demo industry.”

OSHA indicates it also provides compliance guidance to companies that are impacted by the new rules, including on a section of its website devoted to the topic.

“OSHA can provide compliance assistance through a variety of programs, including technical assistance regarding effective safety and health programs, workplace consultations and training and education,” says the agency.

The agency says its On-Site Consultation Program “offers free, confidential occupational safety and health services to small- and medium-sized businesses in all states and several territories across the country, with priority given to high-hazard work sites.”

Those on-site consultation services, the agency says, “are separate from enforcement and do not result in penalties or citations.”

During these processes, consultants from state agencies or universities work with employers to identify workplace hazards, provide advice on compliance with OSHA standards, and assist in establishing and improving safety and health management systems, according to the agency. OSHA says more information on the service can be found at www.osha.gov/consultation.

Although it is uncertain how these silica dust mandates will be enforced, the history of regulation might lead recyclers and contractors to conclude that taking proactive preventive steps—whether through the agency itself, by contacting a trade association or through a software vendor or consultant—can save considerable troubles down the road.

The author is an editor with the Recycling Today Media Group and can be contacted at btaylor@gie.net.